It’s been a dismal stretch for a woman’s right to choose. Not everywhere – I swear that if you stay with me there’s going to be a bright spot. But, first, I’m afraid we’re going to have to talk about Texas.
Like many states, Texas has been on a real tear when it comes to women and reproduction. The Legislature keeps piling on indignities, like mandatory pre-abortion sonograms and a script that the doctor has to read to educate the pregnant patient about her condition. Which people in the state Capitol are sure she never thought through on her own.
Texas abortion clinics, which perform a relatively simple procedure with a stupendously low history of complications, are now required to have all the staff, equipment, bells and whistles of a hospital surgical center. Lawmakers tried to describe this as a matter of health and safety, but the debate wouldn’t have fooled anybody.
“How would God vote tonight if he were here?” demanded state Sen. Dan Patrick, now the lieutenant governor.
Since that law passed in 2013, clinics have been closing, even though litigation held off the full impact. The number has now dropped to 18 – for a state that is larger than France, with a population of more than 25 million.
The holdouts were waiting for the federal appeals court to save Texas from itself. But, this week, the court decided that the rules were perfectly reasonable. A three-judge panel based in New Orleans accepted the legislators’ argument that they were just trying to make sure women seeking abortions got “the highest quality of care.” These were the same lawmakers who recently wiped out federal funding for Planned Parenthood’s breast and cervical cancer screening programs.
Advocates are going back to court, but unless they win a postponement, by the end of the month, only a handful of clinics will survive.
“Abortion has happened since time began,” said Fran Hagerty, who leads the Women’s Health and Family Planning Association of Texas. “It’s not going to end. What’s going to end is for women to get care that is safe, that doesn’t put their lives at risk. That’s what’s ending. We all know that. Maybe the legislators know it, too, and they don’t care.”
Actually, safe abortions are in no danger of becoming extinct. They’re readily available to all American women who have money, and they always will be. If the Texas Legislature had been able to wave a magic wand and eliminate the option for middle-class women in their state, the outcry would have been deafening, and political suicide. But those women can go to the clinics in Dallas, San Antonio or Houston – or Chicago or Los Angeles or New York.
Poor pregnant women in anti-abortion states don’t have those options. But they’re often the most desperate, and these days some are resolving the situation with at-home abortions, using pills found on the Internet.
Recently, prosecutors in Georgia attempted to charge a 23-year-old woman with murder after pills she bought online caused her to miscarry when she was 5 1 / 2months pregnant. Last year, a 39-year-old mother of three in Pennsylvania was sentenced to prison for ordering pills that her daughter took to induce a miscarriage.
“I’m scared,” she told The Times’ Emily Bazelon on the night before she went to jail.
In Idaho, Jennie Linn McCormack, a mother of three, took pills she bought online after she discovered she was pregnant by a former boyfriend.
“Her income was about $200 a month,” said her lawyer, Rick Hearn, who is also a doctor. “At her stage of pregnancy, it would have been $2,000 to go to Salt Lake City, which would have been the closest abortion provider. She didn’t even have a car.”
A local prosecutor charged McCormack with a felony that could have meant up to five years in prison. Fortunately, Hearn succeeded in getting the case dismissed. Then he and McCormack filed a class-action lawsuit, with Hearn acting as both lawyer and physician.
Idaho had a veritable pyramid of anti-abortion laws. This isn’t all that surprising. Idaho is the state where the Legislature at one point stampeded and killed a bill aimed at getting federal assistance to track down deadbeat dads because the lawmakers were afraid it would involve imposition of the Islamic law code Shariah.
And - here comes the bright spot - two weeks ago, a federal appeals court found that the laws that could have turned Jennie McCormack into a criminal were themselves against the Constitution.
The justices saved the state from its lawmakers - at least temporarily - by throwing out many of the state’s abortion laws, including some impossible and useless requirements the Legislature had imposed on the clinics.
And, in dismissing the charges against McCormack, Hearn noted, the court actually pointed out how hard the anti-abortion laws are on poor women.
“Few people ever do that,” he said.